WIMBLEDON, England — Wimbledon runs on nostalgia, and it has been a year brimming with anniversaries. The tournament is commemorating its 150th, Open tennis is commemorating its 50th, and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are commemorating their 10th after their final for the ages here in 2008.
But on Wednesday at the All England Club, it was impossible to take your eyes off the present as Federer and Nadal, still the top two seeds after all the road traveled, dueled with bigger men in different show courts over five sets and more than four hours.
It has been, in many respects, a sotto voce men’s tennis season, with the women’s game generating the lion’s share of the thrills. But the men’s game roared to life on quarterfinal day at Wimbledon. And when dusk arrived and English tennis fans could finally turn their undivided attention to the denouement of England’s World Cup letdown against Croatia, only Nadal was still in the tournament.
He managed it by rallying to hold off Juan Martín del Potro, 7-5, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, on Centre Court in what without doubt will be one of the matches of the year.
By then, Federer, the defending champion, was already down and out after being upset, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11, by Kevin Anderson on the No. 1 Court after holding a match point in the third set.
“As the match went on, I couldn’t surprise him anymore,” said Federer, the No. 1 seed. “That’s a bad feeling to have.”
The result was certainly a major surprise: the eighth-seeded Anderson, a 32-year-old South African who lives in the United States, had not won a set in his four previous matches against Federer.
“I think the toughest thing players face when going out playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance,” Anderson said. “I feel like the times that I’ve played him before, or other guys sort of with his ranking and history, I haven’t really allowed myself to play.”
Obliged to make the trek to No. 1 Court, where he had not played in three years, Federer surely could not have imagined how long his visit would turn out to be.
By the end of the day, a stiff drink seemed more appropriate than another serving of strawberries and cream. Nerves and serves were severely tested, but Anderson, who has cracked at such moments in the past, and Nadal, who has cracked at Wimbledon repeatedly in recent years, were the ones who held it together best against fierce resistance.
In Friday’s semifinals, Anderson now has an unlikely rematch with the American John Isner, his one-time college rival. Isner, 33, defeated Milos Raonic, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-3, to reach his first Grand Slam singles semifinal.
Nadal will renew his rivalry with a resurgent Novak Djokovic, the former No. 1 and three-time Wimbledon champion, who defeated Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. Djokovic and Nadal have faced each other 51 times, more than any other men in the Open era, with Djokovic winning 26 times.
“It’s one of the most difficult matches you can have in tennis,” Nadal said. “We can tell he has gone through a rough period of his career, or not as good, let’s say, but his level is very high again.”
This is Djokovic’s first Grand Slam semifinal since the 2016 United States Open, where he reached the final.
“I’m really not thinking about being an underdog or being a favorite,” said Djokovic, who is seeded 12th here. “I just try to build the momentum.”
Federer certainly had it early against Anderson. He held a match point with Anderson serving at 4-5 in the third set, but Anderson attacked with his forehand and Federer mis-hit a backhand passing shot well out of play.
The real duel was just beginning.
“Down two sets to love, I really tried my best to just keep fighting,” said Anderson, who was playing his first Wimbledon quarterfinal. “And I was able to scrape through that third set and the fourth set, and by the end, I felt I did a great job not thinking about things too much.”
Quieting the mind is as much a challenge as steadying the arm in situations like this. But Anderson was remarkably composed as he played what felt like an away match with all the Federer mania in evidence on No. 1 Court.
“I just kept on telling myself I had to keep believing,” Anderson said. “And I kept saying today was going to be my day.”
Nadal had four set points in the second-set tiebreaker to take a two-set lead against del Potro, but failed to convert them. He soon found himself trailing by two sets to one against one of the game’s most fearsome ball strikers and sentimental figures.
It was a match full of extraordinary shot making, but the fifth set reached another level of intensity and quality with both players diving lunging, slipping and coming up repeatedly with bold winners on the move. Nadal ended up in the first row of the stands at one stage after chasing a del Potro shot even farther than the court’s generous confines allowed.
It was as if they realized that they were competing for hearts and minds — the England-Croatia semifinal was being broadcast at the same time — and were determined to make sports fans regret missing the tennis.
Del Potro hit one forehand winner down the line that was clocked at 107 miles per hour, which caused Andy Murray, the British star doing match commentary for the BBC, to laugh out loud on air.
“That was just ridiculous,” said Murray, a two-time Wimbledon champion who missed this event as he recovers from hip surgery.
The set was, above all, sublime as the fans in Centre Court rose to their feet and put their hands to their foreheads repeatedly, wanting more of the same, please.
“A really great set of tennis, better than any of the others today,” Nadal said. “You have to be realistic. He was hitting the ball really hard, and I was playing aggressively, coming to net, hitting drop shots, going for winners. And I think anything could have happened.”
Both players have world-class forehands, but ultimately, it was Nadal’s ability to do consistent damage with his two-handed backhand that made much of the small difference. Del Potro, now 29, has improved his backhand punching power considerably as he has recovered from four wrist surgeries that nearly knocked him out of the game for good, but the shot is still not the potent weapon of yore.
Nadal broke del Potro’s serve in the fifth game of the final set with a backhand winner. Nadal then saved three break points and navigated six deuces in the critical eighth game before holding to 5-3 with a running forehand winner down the line.
There were no more break points ahead, and Nadal finally closed out the victory with a backhand volley into an open court. As he raised his arms in triumph, del Potro was lying face down on the grass near the opposite baseline.
Nadal made the long walk to meet him and embrace him as he rose to his feet, resting his head on the taller Del Potro’s shoulder after their 4-hour-48-minute masterpiece.
That was exactly the same amount of time Nadal required to defeat Federer in their epic 2008 final played in sunlight and deep shadow on this same stretch of grass.
Their dual revival over the last two seasons and fine play in Week 1 at Wimbledon had spurred perfectly reasonable thoughts of an encore in the men’s final on Sunday.
But Federer, 36, could not quite keep the possibility alive.
The match turned for good when Federer double-faulted for the first time in the match when serving at 11-11, 30-30. Anderson broke him on the next point and then served out the victory, taking deep breaths between deliveries as he had throughout the 4-hour-14-minute duel.
Anderson, who is 6-foot-8, had 28 aces in the match to Federer’s 16, but he is not just a big server. He can produce huge pace from the baseline as well, and he ultimately needed a combination of skills and a great deal of bold thinking to reach his first Wimbledon semifinal.
As he went repeatedly for his shots on crucial points, it was as if he were determined to live with disappointment but not regrets.
Federer may have a few. He lost to del Potro in March in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., after holding three match points. But this defeat, at the tournament he holds dearest and has won eight times, will surely sting more and for longer.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel mental fatigue,” Federer said as he politely answered questions in the aftermath. “Now I feel horribly fatigued and just awful. It’s just terrible, but that’s how it goes, you know. Credit to him.”
It felt like the biggest victory of Anderson’s long career — quite a statement for a man who reached the United States Open final last year.
But now either he or Isner will reach his first Wimbledon final and face an all-time great when he gets there.
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